Getting Sass From My Character

Sometimes when I can’t think of where I am going with a story, I talk to my characters. Sort of. My characters don’t take on a life of their own — I am always aware they are my creations — but sometimes when I begin to make choices for a character, the character seems to be determining her own fate. If a character has a particular daughter, a particular problem, a particular job, then all those things bind the character and make her act a particular way.

In the case of poor Amanda, the hero of my newest work in progress (the one that got its start as a NaNoWriMo project), her life is bound by a dead husband, a rebellious twenty-something daughter, and an online lover she’s never met. Once a preacher’s wife with an entire support system, she now has to deal with everything on her own. In addition, she’s going to have to leave the parsonage where she’s lived for the past fifteen years, and she barely has enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. All these problems bind the poor woman, creating more dilemmas than she can handle. Still, with all her trauma, she seemed boring to me, so I sat her down and tried to find out why I am having a problem with her. Don’t know if I solved the problem of why I find her so boring, but at least I got a better understanding of who she is and where to go with the story.

Bertram: I can’t get into writing your story. You’re nothing special, just a woman grieving. Boring.

Amanda: Sam thinks I’m special and unique.

Bertram: Who’s Sam?

Amanda: Don’t you know?

Bertram: Of course I know. I created him. I just wondered if you knew.

Amanda: I know he’s a special man. We met online at a support group for people whose mates are dying of cancer. His wife and David—my husband—were both told they had three to six months to live. Having something so real to talk about cut through all the usual crap people go through when the meet, even online, so we got to know each other very quickly. And we fell in love. Took us both by surprise. Neither of us were looking for that, and we didn’t know you could develop such powerful feelings without ever having met.

Bertram: What happened to Sam’s wife?

Amanda: She rallied. Is in remission right now. Still not well, but doesn’t seem to be terminal. Sam is staying with her. We want to get together, but he lives halfway across the country. In Ohio. I need so much to feel his arms around me. I am stunned by the depth of my grief for David. I thought I was over him—he took such a long time to die, you see. Over a year. I thought I’d finished with my grief and moved on, but when he died, it felt as if I were dying, too. If I didn’t love Sam, I couldn’t have gone on.

Bertram: I don’t understand how you can love one man while mourning another.

Amanda: I don’t understand it either. Sam says I’m a complicated woman. He says that there’s a part of me that will always belong to him, a part David never knew. Apparently I need to men to fulfill me. Yet here I am . . . alone. And grieving.

Bertram: What part belongs to Sam?

Amanda: The passionate part. I always thought I was a passionless woman—I’d have to be, being David’s wife. He wasn’t much for sex. I think it had something to do with his childhood, something that happened to shape his life, but he never talked about it. I’ll find out, though—it’s important to the story. See, when I find out that he’s different from the man I knew, then I panic and wonder who I am. For most of my adult life, I defined myself by my relationship with him. He gave my life focus and meaning. Which is why finding out the truth about Davis is important. I need to know who he is so I can find out who I am.

Bertram: And who are you?

Amanda: I don’t know. Isn’t that your job, to create me?

You can read the entire conversation here: Pat Bertram Introduces Amanda Ray, Hero of a New Work-in-Progress

Don’t Mess With a Grieving Woman

This is an excerpt from my NaNoWriMo novel:

Amanda was fumbling in her purse for her keys when a voice said, with low-toned menace, “Give me your purse or I will kill you.”

She jerked her head up. Standing between her and her Corolla were two men who looked barely old enough to shave. One jiggled from foot to foot like a child who needed to go to the bathroom, but the other stood firm, his hands steady on a gun.

The scene didn’t seem quite real. Perhaps she’d wandered onto a movie set? She looked around. No cameras. Just the two men standing before her in broad daylight.

Was there such a thing as narrow daylight? She giggled at the thought. Then stopped abruptly. I really am going crazy.

“What’s with you, bitch?” screamed the man with the gun. “Gimme your purse or I’ll kill you.”

“Promise?” Amanda said, clasping her purse to her chest.

The jiggling man lifted his hands and pointed a finger at her like a gun. “Yeah, we’ll kill you, bitch.”

“Okay.” Amanda stared at them, hope blossoming in her chest. God provides, David had been fond of saying. Maybe God was providing a way out of her grief.

The hand with the gun began to waver.

“Do it, man,” yelled the jiggler.

“Yes, do it,” Amanda said softly.

“I’m out of here.” The gunman took off running.

The jiggler danced in place. “Where are you going?”

“She’s crazy. Or a cop.” The words floated back to them from between a pick-up and a mini-van.

The jiggler looked longingly at Amanda’s purse, hesitated, then trotted after his companion.

Opening a Vein

There’s nothing to writing.  All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.  ~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

I always thought the above was a silly, though poetic thought. If a story really does mean that much to a writer, why are so many books barely adequate? They tell a story, but have no depth, demand no blood in response, give no transfusion.

Even from a writer’s point of view, the idea seems rather overblown. Writing is more of an intellectual activity, at least it always has been for me. But not with this NaNoWriMo project, my grieving woman book. For the first time, I understand the sentiment. I feel as if I am opening a vein while writing the story. Or at least picking at scabs. I thought I was moving right along with my grief, handling it well, but yesterday while writing I hit too close to the truth.

I worried about doing this project, wondering if it was too soon to re-immerse myself into the world of grief, even if only through fictional characters, but I jumped in with both feet. And now here I am, crying again.

I have a hunch that the only way out of this writing dilemma is through, so I’ll continue to open my vein of grief. As Ray Bradbury said, “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”

These are the final words of the scene that destroyed my equilibrium:

“Do you need some liquid morphine?” Amanda asked.

David looked up at her. “Is it time?”

“You can have the liquid whenever you want it.”

“I don’t want to go to Hollywood and be an actor.

An actor? Amanda tried to decipher his words. His mind seemed to take convoluted paths when the simpler words wouldn’t come. Then all at once she understood. “You won’t become a drug addict. I promise.” She left the second part of her thought unspoken. You won’t live long enough to become addicted.

Excerpt From My NaNo Novel

My grieving woman novel is taking shape. Amanda and her twenty-nine-year-old daughter Thalia are having problems that seem to antedate her husband’s death. I’m not sure why the daughter has such a problem with her mother, but perhaps we don’t need to know. It could just be more of the unfinished business the woman has to deal with.

In the scene I wrote today (keeping to my writing schedule, yay!), the daughter accuses her mother of hastily redoing her old bedroom:

“This doesn’t look at all like my room any more,” Thalia said. “There’s not a trace of me here. You could hardly wait to get rid of me.”

Amanda opened her mouth to reply, but for a few seconds, no words came out. She’d completely forgotten that when they first came to this parsonage, Thalia had been a sulky thirteen-year-old. Trying to put a smile on her daughter’s face, she’d promised Thalia she could decorate the room any way she wished. Amanda hadn’t expected pink paint and eyelet ruffles, but she’d been appalled by the black walls and red curtains that gave the impression of dripping blood. The posters of movie vampires and band members who looked as if they’d crawled out of a crypt seemed almost cheerful by comparison.

When Thalia went to college, David claimed the room for a den, but it had been Amanda who been cajoled into doing the work. “Shouldn’t we at least wait until Thalia’s out of college?” Amanda pleaded. For once, David had not been thinking of their daughter. “I need a place to work here in the house. We can put in a sofa bed. Thalia can use it during the summer.” But Thalia had never come back, and secretly Amanda had not blamed her.

“I wish this house were bigger,” Amanda said. “Then we could have kept your room for you.”

“Yeah, right.” Then, sounding like the little girl she had once been, she added, “couldn’t you have turned the parlor into Dad’s den? Nobody has a parlor and a living room anymore.”

“I wanted to, but Dad said he needed a place for receiving visitors. He always thought it was important to keep the living room for us, so we could have some privacy as a family.

“I’m glad he had a place to get away from you.”

Amanda flinched at her daughter’s words, but didn’t bother to correct them. When David had moved out of their shared bedroom into this room after his diagnosis, it had been to spare her his relentless pacing and allow her to sleep undisturbed, not to get away from her. Or so he said.

Could Thalia be right? Maybe he’d mentioned something to her that he wouldn’t say to Amanda. The two often excluded her from their conversations. She used to worry about feeling jealous of her daughter, but she hadn’t been jealous, not really. She’d liked that David and Thalia got along so well. She and her father had been virtual strangers.

The Simple Truth

I’m beginning to understand the truth of grief — you never truly get over it. Whenever I think I’ve reached a stage of acceptance and peace, grief has a way of swinging around and coming at me from a different direction, and it always takes me by surprise.

Yesterday was a good day. I started in on my novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and managed to write the allotted number of words in just a few hours, which pleased me. I’m such a slow writer, I thought it would take me all day to do it, especially since I piddled around for a while, trying to decide which kind of paper to use, which pencil, which clipboard. (Yeah, I admit it — I still write by hand, mainly because it’s easier on my eyes.)

I also posted a blog for the first day of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month).

My self-imposed commitments finished for the day, I went walking in the desert. It was perfect weather — blue skies and warm, still air.

Then bam! Out of nowhere, grief socked me in the gut. I wanted so much to see my mate, to talk to him, that I would barely breathe. The pain lasted for hours. And tears? Too many to count.

The novel I started writing for NaNo was about a grieving woman, so perhaps that had something to do with my upsurge in grief. I’ve been worried that immersing myself in the story of a woman who lost her husband be a bit much for me at this stage, but I also know that I won’t want to revisit grief once I’m done with it. (Yes, I know —  one is never done with grief, but the pain does lessen an the bouts of tears come further apart.)

It’s possible any writing would have brought on this re-grief — he was my sounding board (literally a sounding board –I always read to him what I wrote). And it’s possible it was just time. Lately I’ve been distracting myself when the pain crept in, so it could have been building up.

The whys of this spate of grief, however, are not important. It still comes down to the simple truth: He is dead and there’s not a damn thing I can do about it except learn to live with it.